Sustainable Species
photo Sustainable is a word we here often today in regards to seafood. It means that certain seafood species can be responsibly harvested and their population numbers are strong and they should be available for the future. Here on the Eastern Shore we have a number of species that are deemed sustainable. These include:

Striped bass, sea bass, flounder, croaker, spot, black drum, kingfish, skate, dolphin, blue crab, sea clams, oysters, and hard clams.

photo Farming or manipulating the growth cycle of a fish or shellfish is called aquaculture. There are several shellfish operations which cultivate hard clams and oysters, located on both the seaside and bayside of the Eastern Shore. Most of these shellfish farms raise product for retail and restaurant sectors of the market.

Probably the oldest and most successful form of aquaculture is soft shell crab shedding. There are very large shedding operations throughout the Chesapeake side of the peninsula with the largest found in Crisfield and Deal Island. Often you can buy soft crabs packed to go right from the watermen at their "crab shanty" shedding operations.

Eastern Shore Commercial Fishing Techniques
Commercial fishermen, known as watermen on the Eastern Shore, use a variety of techniques and gear in capture fisheries. Depending on the season, weather conditions, targeted species and even market fluctuations, watermen will employ various methods to harvest crabs, fish or shellfish. Below is brief outline of how local fish are harvested from the Chesapeake Bay and Atlantic Ocean.

Gillnetting - The easiest way to describe a gill net is to think of a volleyball net suspended in the water. These nets, which average 300 feet long can be suspended in the water column from the bottom to just below the surface. The ends of the nets are often marked by floats with colorful flags, letting boaters know that there is a submerged net between the markers. The net can be anchored to catch fish along the bottom or allowed to drift, suspended by floats located along the top line of the net. Weights along the bottom line keep it taught. Gill nets got their name because when they are retrieved by the large spindle type of device on a boat, the fish caught in the net are suspended by their "gills." Gill net fishing is heavily regulated for mesh size, seasons of use, attendance and area of use. Target species for gill nets, in both the ocean or bay, include croaker, spot, striped bass, weakfish, black drum, bluefish, menhaden and monkfish.

Pound Net - This type of fishing is based on ancient native American methods of harvesting migrating or feeding fish. Pound nets are "anchored" from the shoreline and feed out into deeper waters. The net system is framed by long, sturdy poles set in the bottom and used to keep the net upright. A long single feeder net line leads out to a "heart" shaped area where the fish become confused and will then enter the "pound" or capture area of the net. Watermen in boats check the net daily to harvest the fish trapped in the "pound" section of the net system. Pound nets are labor intensive, but effective. They work on the simple premise that moving fish will always seek deeper water when faced with an obstacle. Target fish include spot, croaker, black drum, weakfish, flounder, menhaden, and striped bass, among others.

Crab Pot -The most ubiquitous type of crab harvesting gear used by Eastern Shore watermen is the crab pot. Invented in the 1930's at Crisfield, the crab pot has remained the most effective tool to harvest blue crabs. This 3 ft. x 3ft. wire box shaped trap is called a pot, and includes several openings, a bait "pocket" and escape openings (cull rings) for small fish and juvenile crabs. An iron rebar frame anchors the crab pot on the bottom in an upright position. Crab pots can be fished individually or on a long line or rope. Pots are baited with menhaden, razor clams or eel. Crab pots have colorful marker buoys that allow identification by the owner out on the open water. Smaller mesh sized crab pots baited with fish or male crabs are used to catch primarily soon to be molting peeler crabs.

Trot Line - This type of harvesting device is primarily used in tidal rivers where wire crab pots are not allowed. A trot line consists of a long heavy line that is anchored on the bottom and dozens of drop lines called "snoods" are attached. These snoods hold bait such as eel, salted fish and even bull lips. Trot lines are retrieved periodically throughout the day by an electric winch on the boat. As the line comes over the gunwale of the boat, the crabs are captured by the waterman using a dip net. Seasons usually run from April through November.

Crab Scrape - Is a bottom dredge primarily used to harvest crabs which are about to begin their shedding or molting stage. These crabs are known as peelers and are harvested and then transported to shedding tanks, which induce them to molt and turn into delicious soft crabs. Crab scrapes are used by shallow draft boats that work near grass lined shorelines. These are natural hiding areas for crabs nearing their molting stage.

Bank Trap - As the name implies bank traps are similar in design and technique to a fish pound net. Bank traps catch crabs that move along a submerged wire fence line forcing them into a large square wire enclosure which is the end game for the crabs.

Patent Tong - This mechanical device is used to harvest oysters from the bottom along natural occurring "bars." They are similar in design to the clawed devices used in boardwalk arcade games to grab small stuffed toys or other useless things. But patent tongs are more honest in nature and allow watermen to harvest oysters from the bottom in a safe manner. Lowered by hydraulics from a pivotal "boom," the patent tong grabs oysters off the bottom which are then leveraged up and spilled onto a culling board. Patent tongs received their name from the "patent" that was issued for their invention at Crisfield in 1891.

Hand Tongs - The use of hand tongs is not for the feint of heart. These manual labor devices are used to harvest oysters from the bottom using sheer strength and intrepidness. The tongs are made of a hard wood and have an average length of 20 feet long. Operated like a "scissor," tongs are lowered into the water to hand haul oysters up from the bottom. Due to the nature of this back breaking work, hand tong use is a dying trade.

Power Dredge - This is probably the most effective oyster harvesting device employed around the Eastern Shore. The power dredge is lowered from a boat and pulled along the bottom to "drudge" up oysters. Boats will take a "lick" pulling the dredge across oyster bars specially dedicated to this effective harvesting method. The dredge itself is made of iron and has a metal chain mesh catch bag to hold the caught oysters.

Skip jacks, the iconic last sailing fishing vessels still operating in the United States, use a similar device to take a "lick" of the bottom to harvest oysters. But they use the power of sail to move the dredge across the bar.

Clam Dredging - Both hard clams and soft clams are sometimes harvested using a conveyor belt hydraulic dredge. The conveyor belt device is lowed into the water and a water hose is utilized to "blow" clams located on the sand bottom onto the moving dredge. The conveyor belt then moves the clams up out of the water and past a waiting waterman who culls the catch.

Hard shell clams can also be "hand harvested" by using rakes or wading sand flats to dig up clams. Both methods are effective, but labor intensive.

Gill Net - These types of nets are primarily used to intercept migrating schools of fish such as monk fish, bluefish, striped bass and croaker. Depending of their mesh size various sizes of fish can be harvested. Gill nets can be employed at various water depths depending on target species. Gill net activity usually takes place in early spring and fall months.

Long Line - Long line fishing is a very effective way to harvest large pelagic (migratory) species of fish found offshore. Long lines, as the name implies can be several miles long and employ the use of suspended baited hooks, which can reach the thousands depending on the size of the long line. Target species include tunas, dolphin, mako shark, and the highly prized swordfish. Ocean city has a few of these boats in operation.

Trawler Net - Large ocean going fishing boats, often called trawlers, deploy a net which is pulled through the water column by large spreader bars. These nets come in various sizes and mesh size depending on target species and regulations. These nets can be fished close to the bottom or near mid-level in the waters. Most Eastern Shore trawlers fish for flounder, spot, croaker, bluefish, menhaden, and squid. Some of these boats are nomadic, following fish migrations and various state fishing seasons.

Traps - Bottom traps are deployed to harvest both lobster and fish off the Eastern Shore. Lobster traps are set in far offshore areas around the "canyons." Baited lobster traps are fished in waters up to 300 feet deep and strung out on "trot" line type of arrangements.

Traps are also utilized to catch fish such as sea bass, tautog and triggerfish. Baited traps, which are similar in design to lobster traps, are fished on the bottom in deep offshore waters. Sometimes the sea bass are sold "alive" to fish markets in large urban areas.

Bottom trap type devices are also used to catch smooth and knobbed whelk, often called conch in this area. These slow moving snail creatures move close inshore during the cooler months and are caught in wood or wire "open face" traps using horseshoe crab or skate wings for bait. They are sold primarily to ethnic markets in the US and overseas.

Photographs by Charles Petrocci